By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- Strasburg Express manager Ben Moore has continually stressed the importance of winning the battle of what he refers to as the "free 90," a term used to describe errors, walks, stolen bases, passed balls, wild pitches -- anything that awards an opponent an extra base.
It's hardly a breakthrough statistic, but the Express is simply better when it has the advantage in that category.
Front Royal appeared content with allowing Strasburg to win that important battle of the mistakes on Tuesday night in game one of the best-of-three quarterfinal series of the Valley Baseball League playoffs. The No. 3 Cardinals committed six errors, including three costly miscues in the sixth inning that helped Strasburg to a 4-3 win.
"They were kicking our butt the first couple innings and we just kept fighting," Moore said. "We talk about two-strike approaches all the time and I think a lot of those errors were with two strikes. And we capitalized."
Front Royal built a 3-0 lead behind a solid pitching effort from starter Jake Harper, but the Cardinals -- who had tiptoed around three errors heading into the sixth inning -- imploded with three errors that helped Strasburg push four runs across the plate.
The Cardinals' first error of the sixth inning came on a grounder by Strasburg catcher Teddy Payne, and a two-out walk by Luke Wurzelbacher put two on for the Express. Harper induced a pop up on the infield grass but the ball was misjudged by second baseman Garrett Anderson, and the ball dropped safely to plate Strasburg's first run.
Strasburg designated hitter Joe Camp tied the game at 3-all with his two-RBI single to center, and Cardinals third baseman Hunter Newman committed his third error of the game to further extend the inning. Sky Overton's RBI infield single into hole on the left side of the infield off reliever Logan Longwith plated Camp and gave the Express a 4-3 lead.
"They didn't beat us, we handed them the game. That's the fact of the matter," Cardinals manager Brad Neffendorf said. "They don't score a run if we can catch a fly ball and we don't make three errors over here [at third base] on routine grounders."
After being handed the 4-3 lead in the sixth, Express relief pitcher Braden Riddle made sure Strasburg maintained that lead. Riddle shook off his recent struggles and didn't allow a baserunner in his 4 2/3 innings on Tuesday night.
"What a lot of people don't know ... his outings the last two weeks have not been good at all," Moore said of Riddle, a right-hander from Chapman University in California. "We've tried to put him in to throw a mop-up inning here and there to get his confidence up ... so for him to come in in that situation right there and do what he did after the two weeks he's had is unbelievable."
Riddle came on with one out in the bottom of the fifth inning after Strasburg starting pitcher Brock Hunter walked Front Royal's Zarley Zalewski -- Hunter's fourth walk issued in the inning -- to plate a run and give the Cardinals a 3-0 lead. Riddle got back-to-back strikeouts to end the fifth inning and leave the bases loaded.
"I was just coming in trying to do my best, get the ball on the ground for a double-play ball or not give them anything they can just crush and knock in some runs," Riddle said.
Riddle finished the game with five strikeouts and earned his first win since June 27.
"Today we just all played together and stuff just started working. I was getting the curveball over and keeping them off-balance," Riddle said. "That was a lot better than it's been the last couple times I've been out there. I felt really good. I was getting it over when I needed to and getting it in the dirt when I needed to."
Front Royal took a 1-0 lead in the bottom of the first inning on an RBI sacrifice fly by Jacob Russell, but the Cardinals were prevented from doing further damage when Newman was thrown out trying to tag up from first base.
Josh Keim delivered an RBI single in the fourth inning to give the Cardinals a 2-0 lead.
Hunter went just 4 1/3 innings for Strasburg and allowed six hits and seven walks while striking out one.
Harper allowed five hits and a walk while striking out one in 5 2/3 innings for Front Royal. None of his four runs allowed were earned.
Game two of the quarterfinal series will be played today at Strasburg at 7 p.m.